Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A Keeper Indeed
She’s done it again. Sarah Langan's first novel, The Keeper, was more than a great horror debut--it set a bar that sorely seems to be missing in most contemporary fiction, much less horror fiction. Though he can't play a part in a movie without hamming it up, Stephen King's downright understated and realistic on the page. His strength as a writer stems largely from how well he seems to know people and the way his surrealism stays so firmly anchored in the world we know. Langan has this same pitch perfect ear, with a voice and vision comparable to King but distinctly valuable.

H.G. Well's famously said something like 9/10ths of fantastic writing must be rooted in a strict adherence to reality. I think that has more than a little to do with why the best horror writers manage to create realities that feel more genuine than most, ahem, respectable fiction. I know this teacher at the heart of the novel, a woman even her aesthetically disabled physician recognizes as beautiful but who only sees herself in terms of the gap between her teeth, her lisp, and her abandonment by the two most important men in her life.

And then there's the young Romeo and Juliet of the story, Maddie and Enrique. They are not romanticized as perfect kids, but they aren't ridiculed either. They are fumbling innocents from opposite sides of the tracks discovering sex one awkward step at a time. They are sweet, and they are selfish; they are real.

That's what makes the horror of this story so shattering. Figuratively and literally, Langan has mutated the monster that all but destroyed the working class town, Bedford, in her first novel and delivered it as a viral contagion on the more affluent neighboring community, Corpus Christi. And this second trip to the apocalypse is, if anything, a darker ride.

For one thing, it's scarier. The Keeper holds a dear place in my heart for the beauty of its vision. But it was more of a ghost story, with that genre's tendency to find hope in a reckoning with the past. The Missing doesn't offer hope, at least not an unqualified hope. The reader takes heart in the fact that people make it to the end of the book, and in the sometimes very small ways they hang onto their humanity against insurmountable odds.

The beauty of this book lies in the quality of the fear. Time after time, sympathetic characters have to face down all but unimaginable horrors, dealing with the predators that have come under the control of this virus. They're as sick as those folks dying off in the first two hundred pages of The Stand, but they're also dangerous--they don't talk right, they don't walk right, they don't move right, and they somehow think as one and know their victim's darkest secrets and fears. Most horror has a couple of good chills that stand out--Langan keeps them coming fast and furious without such moments losing their power.

The scariest thing of all may be just how good she is.

My earlier review of The Keeper:

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